In last Thursday’s Democratic debate, the candidates got into a rare exchange about the single biggest flaw in our political system: the fact that politicians need huge amounts of money to pay for their election campaigns, and that they get this money not from ordinary citizens, who don’t have it, but rather from very wealthy individuals and – usually but not always – from major corporations. This is why we’ve had three waves of tax cuts for the wealthy since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, why economic inequality has soared in this country, why the American worker has largely lost the right to organize in labor unions, why drug prices are so high, and more generally why lobbyists – who give money to politicians, who raise money for politicians, and whose clients give money to politicians – are so effective at getting our government to enact laws which benefit corporate America to the detriment of most Americans. In particular, campaign cash explains why the Republican Party and its leader, Donald Trump, steadfastly deny the reality of climate change and block environmental policies which would reduce the burning of fossil fuels. Such policies would reduce the profits of the coal, oil and gas industries. Consequently, these industries donate very large amounts of money to politicians’ campaigns, and overwhelmingly this money goes to Republicans, which is why Republicans lie to the voters and claim that the planet isn’t getting hotter, or if it is, burning fossil fuels isn’t causing the problem.
In the United States of America, government is for sale, and this problem has been getting worse and worse with every electoral cycle since the end of the 1970s, as the cost of running election campaigns has risen. Instead of government of the people, by the people, for the people, we have government of the wealthy, by the wealthy, for the wealthy. Only seldom do candidates for public office talk about this glaring problem, and consequently the journalists who write about politics don’t talk about it either. The overwhelming majority of politicians cannot talk about this problem, and cannot advocate effective campaign finance reform, because doing so would alienate the high-dollar donors on which they depend to fund their campaigns. In this presidential election, however, we have two viable candidates – Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders – who do not depend on high-dollar donors. They have raised the bulk of their campaign funds in small donations. This has liberated them to advocate progressive policies – like a wealth tax, debt-free college, Medicare-for-All, and serious action on climate change – that would alienate the wealthy donors who fund the campaigns of such rivals as Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar. Their ability to raise money in small donations from ordinary citizens has also liberated Warren and Sanders to make an issue out of money in politics, to point out that the political system is “rigged” (in their apt phrasing) in favor of corporations and the wealthy, and to imply that their rivals are the tools of wealthy interests. Because he is a billionaire and is funding his campaign out of his personal wealth, and thus does not depend on donors, Tom Steyer has also been free to make some of the same arguments.
This criticism of big money in politics has until recently been muted, but burst into the open a few weeks ago, when Warren called on Buttigieg to allow reporters into his fundraising events, and to release the names of his bundlers. In the debate, Warren neatly summarized one aspect of the problem: “[p]eople who can put down $5,000” in a fundraiser “don’t have the same priorities as people who are struggling with student loan debt or who are struggling to pay off medical debt.” In other words, since wealthy people and corporations pay for most politicians’ campaigns, the needs of American working families (not to mention the poor) get neglected, in favor of the desires of the wealthy. Warren made a second important point when she affirmed that “[w]e can’t have people who can put down $5,000 for a check drown out the voices of everyone else.” Here Warren correctly observed that at present, our political system is not really a democracy, because in a democracy all citizens get a voice, and there is rough political equality – one-person-one-vote. Right now we have a political system in which one billionaire has the rough equivalent of, say, a million votes or more. In our politics today, as Warren rightly states, wealthy campaign donors do indeed drown out the voices of ordinary Americans, and even supposedly “liberal” journalists on outlets like MSNBC end up echoing the talking points of wealthy donors and the politicians who take their money.
On the Monday after the debate, December 23, three talking heads gathered with MSNBC host Stefanie Ruhle for her morning show. All four of these journalists and political operatives took the side of Biden and Buttigieg in the debate, echoing their talking points as they fended off criticism by Warren and Bernie Sanders of their high-dollar campaign fundraising. Everyone on Ruhle’s show agreed that Democrats shouldn’t attack each other over an issue as supposedly unimportant as money in politics, when they need to pull together to defeat Donald Trump. Like Biden and Buttigieg, Ruhle and her guests dismissed the idea that campaign donations buy influence over government – when in fact campaign cash clearly buys an enormous amount of influence in Washington. They concluded their discussion of money in politics by calling it “much ado about nothing.” Why are smart people like Stefanie Ruhle and her guests peddling such nonsense to the voters?
Part of the problem may be that television personalities tend to be wealthy themselves, just like the donors whose political influence they seem oblivious to (or which they don’t mind). Ruhle, whose net worth has been estimated at $5 million, recently bought, together with her husband, hedge fund executive Andy Hubbard, a $7.5 million townhouse on Manhattan’s exclusive Upper East Side. Journalists also do not take money in politics seriously because very few politicians – here Sanders and Warren are the exceptions that prove the rule – ever talk about this problem. Again, politicians are silent on this issue because they depend on high-dollar donors to get elected and re-elected. These politicians cannot go out on the stump and rail against the evils of money in politics, and call for campaign finance reform, and the next day call up their donors and ask for more money. They are trapped in the current system of campaign finance, and they have every incentive to play down the idea that campaign donations determine which policies they support. The political operatives on Ruhle’s show respond to these same financial incentives, so they also deny that campaign cash shapes policy, and dismiss Sanders and Warren as being extreme or unrealistic in their views.
How can we break through this wall of misinformation, in which even the supposedly “liberal” media dismiss the importance of big money in American politics? This strikes me as a problem that only Warren and Sanders can solve, and their first step must be to show voters how to get money out of politics. So far, unfortunately, the only “solution” they’ve offered – as Warren did during the debate – is to call for a constitutional amendment that would overturn Citizens United and other wrong-headed court decisions about campaign finance. While an amendment is a pleasing thought, it is wholly unrealistic, because the entire Republican Party stands united against any kind of campaign finance reform. To amend the Constitution, you need a two-thirds majority of both the House and the Senate just to put an amendment in play, and then three quarters of the states have to ratify the amendment, so the GOP will easily block any such amendment.
Luckily, there is a much easier solution to the problem, by a simple act of Congress, and indeed it exists in a bill that has already been drafted and introduced in the previous Congress, in December 2018. I refer to Rep. Ro Khanna’s Democracy Dollars Act. For a lengthier discussion of the Democracy Dollars concept, please see my blog post of October 5, 2019. Briefly, under Khanna’s bill the federal government would give every registered voter a virtual account of campaign cash – say $50 for each electoral cycle. The voters cannot withdraw this money for personal use, but instead go online and assign it to the candidates of their choice. With 200 million registered voters, this means $10 billion of public funds for politicians’ campaigns for each election, as compared to the $6.5 billion of private money that was spent in the 2016 federal elections (presidency and congress). Every serious candidate could fund his or her campaign mostly or entirely from donations received from voters, which would let politicians serve the voters instead of serving big corporations and wealthy individuals. Even better, although many candidates might need private money to get their campaigns off the ground, so they can reach the voters and ask for their Democracy Dollars, at some point every candidate must make a decision: opt into the Democracy Dollars system, and give up all future private donations, or else fund the entire campaign entirely with private money. Candidates who choose the second course of action will be justly and ferociously criticized for preferring to serve wealthy interests over serving the voters. This immense political pressure would drive a lot of the private money out of our politics, and within a single electoral cycle, make this country a democracy again.
An intriguing mystery of this political season is why Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have not already made Democracy Dollars a leading issue. After all, it fits perfectly with their overall message: they constantly (and correctly) affirm that the political system is “rigged” in favor of corporations and the wealthy. Talking about Democracy Dollars lets Sanders and Warren educate the voters about exactly how the political system got rigged, and lets them show the voters that the system can actually be fixed. This would be empowering for the voters, and add substance to Warren and Sanders’s promise of deep structural change. If Sanders and Warren do not make the issue of money in politics central to their campaigns, they won’t be able to use this issue effectively against their Democratic rivals, nor against Donald Trump if either one of them becomes the nominee. Finally, if they do not push through a Democracy Dollars reform promptly upon assuming the presidency, neither one of these progressives has much chance of enacting their agenda. So long as the next Congress depends on high-dollar donors for their 2022 re-election campaigns, few of them will vote for the tax hikes on the wealthy which Sanders or Warren would need to fund progressive policies.
For decades now, campaign cash has been eating away at the foundations of our democracy, and giving us a government which doesn’t serve the needs of most Americans. Because almost all politicians have been trapped in dependence on high-dollar donors, almost nothing has been done to address this problem, and the voters remain poorly educated about its importance. With the candidacies of Warren and Sanders, we have a rare window of opportunity within which to solve this fatal flaw in our political system. There is still time to save American democracy, but time is running out, and it is running out fast.